Monday, November 4, 2013

Mouthy Monday - Synopsis of Paintarab

Yesterday, I went on a trail ride with Kathy, my long time friend and fellow horse owner. It wasn't a ride worthy of  my usual blog posts, no wild adventures, nothing broke, collapsed, was washed away...

The sky was brilliant, cloudless and deep blue. The trees were golden, the afternoon sun glinted off the water in Fountain Creek and there weren't too many people.

Our mares loaded quietly into Kathy's straight load, two-horse trailer without a fuss. They unloaded the same way.

We saddled without thought, correcting  a lean, grouchiness, or a step away with a touch, a quiet "Tsst." -- the days of rope swinging, smacking, growling, cussing or yelling long past.

They were cheerful, interested and walked out with their tails swinging (not swishing) and a sense of adventure. We crossed water and downed logs, circumvented some wicked washouts, scrambled across some questionable ground and took in the terrible damage our year of fire and flood had wreaked.

Around here, hidden, man-made drainage paths and ditches at construction sites are marked with long, snaky black landscape fabric, staked about two-feet high. This same method has been adopted to mark the new paths water has been taking, in formerly dry areas, along the trails in our parks.

The high point of our ride was Madonna walking quietly, with very minor urging from me, over each and every one. OK, maybe it wasn't Kathy's high point, but I was pretty excited. Two years ago, the entire ride would have been about getting her past, not over, just one of sheet of this evil, black, snaky, wind snapping plastic. Come to think about it, Kathy's high point was, probably, getting to actually finish a ride without waiting for Madonna to get past the plastic, through the water, within 500 yards of the cement yellow blocks, I could go on, but you get the picture.

You see, her mare Rosie, has common sense. Lots of it. Madonna, not so much. She is, probably, the skitteriest horse I have ever owned. Yet here we were, enjoying the day, skitter free.

Rosie is 15. Madonna is 10. Kathy bought Rosie when she was 10 days old or so, I bought Madonna as a long yearling.

When I bought Madonna, she was the culmination of all my work, my training, my experience, and where I wanted to go in the NRCHA show world. She is bred to be reactive, lightening quick and intensely focused. She was and is the highest quality horse I've had the pleasure to own.

Kathy bought Rosie because she had the cutest face she had ever seen, had the same pinky, strawberry blonde coloring as Kathy and her entire family, and because her friends had bred this foal crop  and other friends (including me) were buying them.

At one point, Kathy and I did talk about the day, our horses and how far we've come.

"Did you ever think we'd be riding down the trail, on these horses, like a couple of old ladies?"

"We are old ladies."

We grinned at each other.

"You know why they're like this, don't you?"

"I think so."

"Because this is what you get when you don't quit, when you keep learning, when you keep trying."

We grinned at each other again.

Kathy and I are so different from each other, our horses, also life-time friends, are as opposite as we are. But man, I'll tell you, we don't rest on our laurels and we don't quit. My spooky, explosive, leaping goon is becoming incredibly solid on the trail. Her laid-back, opinionated, yes Kathy, I'm saying it, lazy ass Rosie can stop and spin and cut a cow.

I have learned, that for me anyway, this is what this horsaii thing is all about. The journey. Spending a lifetime with a horse, growing, changing, learning and becoming a single unit. Overcoming mistakes, getting better in spite of ourselves, finding out that we were ultimately on the right track.

A good horse takes time. They live for thirty years for a reason.

This self-congratulatory tale segues right into Paintarab and her story. There are so many things here that make me wiggle like a six-month-old Lab pup.

First and foremost, Paintarab was willing to try something new. It was scary, from the concept, to the knowledge of what her horse was going to do during the trial. She tried it, within safe and reasonable boundaries, anyway.

She knew she had the skills to ride her horse. She tried them out in the arena first. She kept the parts that worked for her and rejected the parts that didn't.

Even though she rejected parts today, she didn't decide they could never work. They became goals, puzzles to work out, things to do as her life with her horse unfolded.

No matter how things worked out, she was still enjoying her life with her horse.

This is everything, absolutely everything, I try to convey with this blog.

Now, here comes my trainerly input. When a horse flips her head in the air, even if she is using it as an excuse to bolt, it is still a lack of forward. The head in the air hollows out the back, lets her escape the drive from the rear, dump on the front end and commence scrambling with the front legs. This learned evasion is a powerful one and to me anyway, very interesting.

The horse is, essentially, rejecting me as partner and treating me like a predator. She is trying to run out from under me, get the mountain lion off her back, revert to the way she was created to respond to an attack and get rid of all this high falutin' training crap.

So. A tie down will allow me to get control of her head, yank her back to me, re-engage her hind end and remind her that she is, dammit, required to carry me without the fear of imminent death.

If I have to ride a horse that requires a tie-down in order for me to be safe, then I won't ever feel truly safe. I get nervous when I can't control my horse's head beyond the use of my legs and my bit/hackamore/bitless whatever.

I want my primary control to come from the control I have of my horse's legs, not her head. I get control of my horse's legs with my legs and the forward drive of the hindquarters into the bit. When my horse is driving her hind legs forward, pushing into the wall I create with my hands (the bit), and accepting the wall as a place to push into, not try to crawl over, then I'm happy. Because if our forward movement comes from her pushing the wall, then she is driving, not dragging, her back is raised and not hollowed, her poll is soft, her nose is in and I am safe.

If she responds to my legs and hands by raising her nose to the sky, grabbing the bit or gaping her mouth, hollowing her back and scrambling, then I have either lost control of the legs, or never had it. If I need a tie-down to get or regain control, then I'm controlling my horse with her head, not my legs. This  makes me feel insecure.

There's my why's here's my how.

Paintarab is 100% right. As long as the tie-down is her only sure way to regain control of her mare in the open, then she needs it. Because this is a learned evasion on the part of the mare, this horse might always need one when she's ridden out.

Being me, I would keep trying and trying to get rid of it. But that is OCD me. Here's how I work with head tossers, bit grabbers, horses willing to whack me in the nose with their head....

I want the horse to learn a new evasion. I want her to find escape through compliance to my hands. I begin this with some basic flexing exercises, NOT WHILE STANDING STILL but while in motion. I do most of this stuff at a trot, there's enough movement to keep things from stagnating, but we're not going to end up in a panicky, bolty place.

I ride in a simple, broken mouth O-ring. No cavesson, no drop-nose band, no tie down. My horse can gape, toss, flip flop,whatever....except it isn't going to get her anywhere.

I love serpentines, from great big loopy esses to tight tight, uniform, balanced turns. They give me brief contact that makes sense to my horse, a chance to bend her with my legs, and plenty of release time.

At first, this is my only goal, controlled serpentines with correct body shape, drive from the rear, a raised back and a relaxed poll.

The beauty of serpentines is, I can get all these things by only focusing on forward with my legs and turning with one rein at a time. So, it's no brainer suppling, basic collection, and clear communication.

I start with an active posting trot. I use my entire arena, leave the face alone and go for it. If my horse throws her head in the air and blows, I pull her into the arena fence with my outside rein and kick the crap out of her until she turns through and is headed the other way, then I relax my reins and return to my posting trot. I'll continue this very unattractive drill until I can count on her to trot the rail, active and forward, on a loose rein. Trust me, it doesn't take long, and she will truly appreciate the concept of a release when we're done.

Then, I sit deep and begin to ask for a gradual turn, a single ess the long way across the arena. I'll give a steady push with my legs, my outside slightly behind my inside, but keep my pressure the same. Then, my inside hand will slowly guide the turn, my outside will remain neutral and steadying. Your basic plow rein. This is usually enough to get the nose in the air, often accompanied by slinging the head out and the shoulders falling in. I concentrate only on getting the feet back on course. Nothing else. I hold my hands steady, no matter what is happening and keeping pushing with my legs.

The second I feel my horse seek my turn I will ease off my legs and soften my hold slightly, for just a moment. Then we're back at it. When the horse figures out I soften if she listens to my legs and follows my hands she will try to find it. I give my tiny releases over and over until the horse softens into the turn. Her inside hind leg will step deep into the turn, her ribs will soften and her head will drop -- because she is looking for the release, not because of anything I am physically doing. Then I relax all aids and we head out on a straight line at the posting trot again.

It won't be pretty or even correct. I will have felt the reach, drive and resulting correct head position and she will get an immediate reward for softening. My goal is pretty and correct. Over time, not today.
On a scale of one to ten, a ten would be getting a series of serpentines across the width of the arena, with lovely bendy turns. A one would be a single moment of compliance, once each way. You and your horse can find your base number and build from there. The key is slow, fluid movements, patience and timing. Yes, your timing can be off, it will improve as you go. The better your timing, the faster the horse will respond.

My next drill (great for cooling down) is creating the problem at a walk, then resolving it, all without losing my forward motion.

The easiest way I know to get a nose in the air is to lean forward, squeeze the barrel with my now, back-too-far legs and pull both reins down, towards my hipbones, better yet, my knees.

I am going to mess around until my horse is wandering around, mouth wide open, head so high I'm saying, "Why hello there!" to that crooked line of double swirls running down her nose.

Then, I'm going to sit up, relax my seat, get my legs aligned like they should be and raise my hands to my shoulder height. I'm going to keep them high and wait. Wait through the head slinging, wait through the over bending to the right and left, wait through the pain in my shoulders...until I feel a tiny drop of the head. Then I'll release it all, we'll wander on a loose rein for a couple of minutes, and then I'll do it again. A ten will be dropping her nose to the ground while walking, a one will lower her nose 1/8 on an inch. Find your base and build.

The key to getting this to work is to sit deep through the turns, don't relax your cues until the horse gives you SOMETHING, and completely release the reins while on the straightaway.

There's two more, but you need these first. Get them done, let me know and I'll share the others.

In the meantime, check out the first five photos in this series. Absorb, be pissed and then move beyond the horrific mishandling of the horses, I agree, but that's not where I'm going. This is simply the clearest example of what trying to control a horse by it's head, vs. instead of controlling the feet I can find.

All I can say is, the way to win a wild horse race is to wrestle it down with ten guys on it's head, exhaust him, terrorize him, hold him down, get him saddled, all by hanging on his head. Then, point him toward the finish line (the gate will draw him), throw the rider on, and let him go. Don't touch his head. He will run like hell from the bastards that were hanging on his face, and if the rider is lucky, not notice he is up there until he crosses the finish line. Then, bail before the bucking commences...although often, if the head is left alone, the horse will never buck.


  1. Really nice post - very well written.

    Once again I'm struck by the thought that the basics of correct riding / training are not discipline specific.

    My former trainer was fond of saying: "If he ain't reachin', you ain't drivin'!"

    (Well, maybe not fond, but she did have to repeat herself... ;D)

  2. K told me once, "It only takes three days to get them broke, from then on you're training. What people don't get is training's nothing more than building off those first three days."

    I've never forgotten that. I've come to think the difference between disciplines are nothing more than variations of the same thing.

  3. "A good horse takes time. They live for thirty years for a reason."

    Well said.

  4. Fantastic. I don't have a head-flinger but I'm going to do this anyways!

  5. I don't have a head flinger - he likes to curl under the bit, but it's the same thing in the end. He want to take control and run at his own pace. I've been at a loss on how to work with him, I've been just trying to drive, drive, drive his hind-end underneath him and not touch his head.

    I will definitely be trying this serpentine schooling with him; thank you so much for writing about it.

    bonita of A Riding Habit

  6. A good horse takes time.

    And real estate and livestock..

    My mare is 9.. she is in my mind still green broke..

    My gelding died at 35 this year.. technically, he was still green broke .. in my mind :)

  7. Bonita -- Behind the bit has always been frustrating to me. It's like the horse is evading my wall by setting his poll on it, which lets him trail his hind legs along.
    I had a client, also a trainer, whose primary discipline was dressage.We met when she came to me to learn some reining. We continued to ride together to trade concepts and ideas.
    Anyway, she showed me a "stupid simple" technique for a horse that wanted to go behind the bit (this exercise works best with an O-ring snaffle) The second my horse went behind the bit, I stood in my stirrups, leaned forward, raised my hands to shoulder level and bumped the bit, not hard, but definitely annoying, in rhythm with the trot. I'd say, "Up! Up! Up!" with every bump until the horse went to the bit, nose down. The horse learned to move into the bit, just to get me out of his face and back in a balanced position.It works very quickly.

  8. Wonderful post, and it hits so close to home for me. I put my 15 year old middle-aged delinquent (a result of his "mommy" being too indulgent about his "idiosyncracies") into training with a really good young trainer for 60 days, just finished a couple of weeks ago.

    This trainer (Romain Ampe of Ampe Performance Horses, in Dunstable MA - gotta put in a plug) trains reiners primarily. And Tico (the horse in question), though cowhorse bred, wasn't going to be going anywhere near an NRHA show ring.

    Romain made sure I knew that I MADE the problems, and it was my responsibility, since I was looking to him to fix what I broke, to change my behavior as well.

    So after the first couple of weeks (while Tico and he worked out their differences, which involved similar head-in-the-air issues as well as a few "I don't wanna and you can't make me" tantrums), I took weekly lessons on Tico.

    It then took a few lessons for Romain to break me of my bad habits, especially the "good boy" pat when the only thing Tico did was that we stopped moving.

    I'm still taking a weekly lesson with Romain to keep ME tuned up.

    And how this relates to your post, sort of...

    Tico... well in the past, a trail ride would often involve a lot of rein yanking and kicking ("No, you can't eat those leaves!", "No just because the reins are loose it doesn't mean you can stop dead and graze"). Now we go out in a field, and he just goes. No "I'm staaaaarrrrrving!" No, "not that bunch of leaves? How about these?" In the woods, he moves along, watches where he puts his feet, dodges branches, but doesn't try to eat everything.

    All of the training he got was inside an indoor. Circles, suppling, straight line canters, run downs to whoa (not sliding, just whoa), backing up, moving the forehand, moving the haunches... But the discipline translates to everything we do.

    Though for what it's worth, blood will tell: Romain has half-joked a number of times that I should put sliders on Tico. I say whoa and he drops his butt and leaves rails in the dirt, just with his regular shoes. :)

  9. Not trying to hijack your post. Love Big K's comment, especially after my last few days... Came back to update on my mare; the one that's been a broodmare for the past 8 years. I've put 3 rides on her since weaning her filly last week (gave her a few days to dry up, did 3 days of pretty serious groundwork, tonight will be ride 4). No buck. Riding her in a rope halter/hack until Thursday - she's having her teeth floated tomorrow. She walks, trots, lopes, backs, and almost ... almost ... neck reins. After having only a couple months on her as a 3 year old, then being in a pasture with minimal human contact for eight years. I'm following a lot of your philosophy on moving her feet, doing serpentines, figure 8's, and generally reminding her she is supposed to go forward and follow her nose. She is smooth and quiet and everything from here on is just fine tuning what she knows and what she remembers, and constantly reminding myself that I'm riding a green horse in a mature horse's body.

  10. Allnamedwildfire- Sounds fun, fun, fun.

  11. Hi Mugs, thanks for the posting! I look forward to once again trying out your methods. Andromeda has had all summer and fall off because I am pregnant (due any day now). I am hoping the time off will be a great excuse to slowly start from square one and see if we can make progress on safely riding without the tie down.

  12. So what about a horse who isn't a total stargazer, but travels hollow with the nose poked out? Will these techniques work for them too?

    I fear this is off topic, or maybe too far ahead of the game, but do you have recommendations for teaching a horse to seek the bit at the canter? I have walk and trot down pretty well, but canter is, well, a struggle.

    Thanks for your wonderful writing and have a great weekend!